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Ministers who married same-sex couples charged

From Jonathan Wald

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Same-sex marriages
New York
Justice and Rights
Religion and Belief

KINGSTON, New York (CNN) -- Two Unitarian ministers were charged Monday for marrying 13 same-sex couples in the upstate New York village of New Paltz.

The Reverends Dawn Sangrey, 62, and Kay Greenleaf, 64, were charged with solemnizing unlicensed marriages. They could spend up to a year in prison and pay separate fines of $500 if convicted.

The ministers defied threats of prosecution and conducted weddings on March 6 after the state's attorney general announced same-sex marriages were illegal in New York.

Robert Gottlieb, the lawyer representing the ministers, said this may be the first time clergy has been prosecuted for marrying gay couples.

Sangrey first heard she had been charged on the radio.

"It's a bit of a shock," she said. "Even when you think it might happen."

Similar charges were brought against New Paltz Mayor Jason West after he presided over the state's first gay marriages February 27.

The 26-year-old mayor postponed marrying couples after a court issued a temporary restraining order against him, and New York's attorney general said same-sex marriages were illegal in the state.

West decided at the last minute not to officiate March 6 and the ministers took over.

In a written statement, Ulster County District Attorney Don Williams said the court order and opinion of the attorney general "draw no distinction between the illegality of such conduct, whether performed by a public official or a member of the clergy."

Sangrey and Greenleaf signed affidavits for the couples they married and said they considered the ceremonies civil and legally binding.

Williams said he was compelled to prosecute Greenleaf and Sangrey because they "publicly proclaimed their intent to perform civil marriages under the authority invested in them by New York State law, rather than performing purely religious ceremonies."

Gottlieb said pressing charges was unnecessary.

"It's a shameful act and simply disingenuous for him to suggest he had no choice but to charge these members of the clergy," he said.

"He has absolute discretion to let this issue be decided in civil cases and the legislature, but he chose to bring it into criminal court."

Last week, Williams said he had been wrestling with the issue of whether to charge the ministers.

"It's a distasteful duty to prosecute a member of the clergy, but I can't avoid it if I've taken an oath to uphold the law," Williams said. "They are not immune just because they are members of the clergy."

Greenleaf was the first to exchange wedding vows with her partner of 17 years, Pat Sullivan, on March 6.

"We love each other and want to be recognized as legal partners," Greenleaf said.

Speaking before Williams' announcement of charges Monday, Greenleaf said, "I am certainly aware that I may be incarcerated or fined for conducting these marriages but that doesn't concern me."

"The Unitarian Universalist movement, myself included, has been conducting same-sex weddings across the United States, including New York, for the past 35 years," Greenleaf added. "No action has been taken and no notice has been taken."

Sangrey, Greenleaf and Marion Visel, another Unitarian minister, married another 25 same-sex couples in New Paltz on Saturday. Sangrey said she would happily marry more.

"I'd be pleased to perform more ceremonies and I'll certainly do what I can to encourage other ministers to conduct them if I'm unable to," Sangrey said. "There's a lot of ministers willing and able to take part. I don't think they're going to shut us down."

Williams said he is waiting to review police reports on the ceremonies conducted Saturday before deciding whether to bring further charges.

After New York Supreme Court Judge Vincent Bradley issued the injunction against the New Paltz mayor, hundreds of volunteers who assisted West in organizing the village's first gay marriages hastily founded the New Paltz Equality Initiative to ensure gay couples could continue marrying in New Paltz.

About 2,800 same-sex couples are on the waiting list of people hoping to marry.

"We're going to carry on with the marriages," said Charles Clement, director of the New Paltz Equality Initiative. "We have other ministers who will conduct ceremonies and are prepared to deal with the legal repercussions."

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